Commentary

Domestic Justice

New York’s new governor, George Pataki, plans to reverse Mario Cuomo’s policy of granting health benefits to the domestic partners of all unmarried state employees. Mr. Pataki is part of a rising political tide that includes Gov. Pete Wilson of California, who said in vetoing his state’s domestic partnership bill that “government policy ought not to discount marriage by offering a substitute relationship that demands much less.” That’s legitimate, but it overlooks that there are two kinds of domestic partnerships — heterosexual and same-sex. Although the most vocal opposition to domestic partnerships is aimed at gay couples, giving them benefits doesn’t undermine marriage. Rather, it remedies the injustice that homosexuals can’t marry the people with whom they share their lives, and it creates financial incentives for stable relationships. Is this not the goal we seek in encouraging marriage?

Giving domestic partnership benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples, on the other hand, does undermine marriage. They give people who can marry all the financial benefits of a legal union without demanding commitment. “If two heterosexuals are going to shack up together, then they ought to get married,” said the Rev. Charles Bullock, who fought successfully to overturn a partnership law in Austin. “If they’re not going to make that commitment to each other, why should the city?”

Although the voters’ shift to the right in 1994 has imperiled domestic partnership laws, the trend toward giving benefits remains strong in the workplace — most recently at Microsoft, Time Inc., and Capital Cities/ABC. Even Coors, perhaps America’s most famously conservative company, is studying the issue.

But many politicians, upset by rising illegitimacy and divorce rates, say that such policies fly in the face of concern about family stability. As Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, said in seeking to overturn the District of Columbia’s domestic partnership law, “We must begin to take a stand for the family.” Gay leaders haven’t helped themselves in this debate. They invariably urge that heterosexual couples be included in legislation and corporate policies. Many have even denounced the traditional family as a stifling, patriarchal institution, thereby fueling a middle-class backlash.

Gay leaders would be better off making a pro-family case, playing up their commitment to their partners and their desire for a legal union. This argument has found sympathy in the private sector. In 1992 Stanford University extended benefits to domestic partners of homosexuals (but not heterosexuals) because “their commitment to the partnership is analogous to that involved in contemporary marriage,” said Barbara Butterfield, a university vice president.

Governments invariably get this wrong, while businesses usually get it right. Every city that has adopted domestic partnership laws has included both same-sex and heterosexual couples, and in almost every case more heterosexuals than homosexuals have filed for partnership status.

But many private organizations — including Stanford, Montefiore Medical Center, Lotus Development Corporation and the Public Broadcasting Service — have extended benefits only to same-sex couples. Most of these companies have said that if homosexual couples are allowed to legally marry, these policies would be ended — which is as it should be.

“This policy discriminates against heterosexuals who choose not to marry,” an embittered heterosexual employee at Lotus said. Exactly. And that’s a point that Governor Pataki and sensible gay activists ought to be able to agree on: commitment should be encouraged, while relationships without commitment should not expect social recognition or financial benefits.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute.